A Comfortable Fit : Music: Guitarist Martin Simpson is at home performing at a tiny Laguna Niguel venue reminiscent of the English folk club where his career began.


The trouble with treasures these days is that so many of them seem to be buried. Consider British guitarist Martin Simpson, whose deeply emotional yet finely delineated expressions on his instrument are like precisely cut gems: Their fire leaps out at you. If you can find them, his recent Shanachie albums "When I Was on Horseback" and "Leaves of Life" demonstrate his masterful way with traditional British instrumental tunes.

In performances, such as the two he'll make Saturday at tiny Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel, he mixes that English tradition and the Mississippi delta in a spellbinding fashion that could draw encore calls from any audience.

But while most concert hall audiences haven't yet heard of the 39-year-old player, he's satisfied with the leaps his career has been making, such as doing two shows at Shade Tree, where he previously has only done single performances.

Speaking by phone from his home in Santa Cruz, Simpson said: "It's a little venue. But if a place like that run by genuine, enthusiastic, knowledgeable people who really care continues to expand the audience for you, you can't ask for more than that. That's the way it's supposed to be. If you aspire to the music scene on a larger scale, there are built-in frustrations and obstacles and you're really putting yourself in the realm of disposable product."

Part of his comfort with working in small folk clubs may stem from his having grown up in them. Simpson was born to a musical family in a northeastern English steel town called Scunthorpe, "a tough old town" that he likens to Gary, Ind. A folk club opened in Scunthorpe at the time he got his first guitar at age 12.

"The British folk scene was really throwing people up at that time, like Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Davey Grahame. Around the same time, Britain really got interested in blues music. So every week from the age of 12 on I could go and see an astonishing list of people. On the blues side there was T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Williams and so many other people."

Most of the musicians were helpful to the enthusiastic young player--even those, such as Williams, not especially known for their kindness.

"You talk to most people about Big Joe and they tell awful stories about him. His nickname around Chicago was Grouch, and he'd threaten to cut people up at the drop of a hat. But he was so nice to me. He talked with me for hours and at the end said: 'I like you, kid. Sign my walking stick.' He had this big Swedish pine plank with a round hole cut in the top of it that was his stick, covered with autographs, and I signed it between Bob Dylan and Joan Baez' names.

"He was definitely not a sophisticated human being, Big Joe. But I loved his playing and singing. He was unbelievably good. I remember so clearly the amount of mud on his cobbled-together guitar. I have a picture of it to remind me that your guitar doesn't need to be shiny to work."

Though Simpson got to see these seminal performers, his town was sufficiently removed from the music scene that he was left to his own wiles to develop his technique.

"I was trying to learn to play the banjo and delta blues guitar simultaneously and almost in a vacuum, so I came up with a lot of fairly unorthodox techniques, like . . . using banjo claw-hammer techniques. There are precedents for that, but I certainly didn't know it. So that became one unique element in my style that I've heavily developed."

His blending of centuries-old British folk and rural American blues doesn't strike him as unnatural.

"I love when things meet up like that. That's what makes it all worthwhile to me. I think it's all just people struggling to express themselves, and very often to express the same thing, the same emotions and quandaries. The music has much more in common than it differs, and that's exciting to me. I really don't like the self-conscious mix and matching of world musics you sometimes hear, but to gently try to put all those things together and make music that works is incredibly exciting."

Simpson said he had decided by the time he was 13 that the only way he'd ever be able to spend as much time as he wanted playing the guitar was to do it for a living. He pursued that, and while still in his teens he was performing on bills with British folk-rock leaders Richard Thompson and Steeleye Span.

He issued his own first record in 1976 and the next year began a 10-year association accompanying the legendary singer June Tabor. He credits that experience and work with other singers as helping to focus his style on communicating songs rather than flash solos.

"I try to get across the emotional content and hopefully the meaningful content of the songs I'm singing, and to allow the audience to feel what I feel from that music. What I've always enjoyed in music is when you can genuinely feel in your heart and in your guts what somebody's saying. The best of music doesn't always make you happy. Sometimes it scares the pants off you, and can allow you to really cathart , if you'll allow that verb.

"The power of songs is enormous, as far as I'm concerned, the opportunity to express feelings in a way that is really quite pure, I think. You're cutting away all the unnecessary elements of a story. In these traditional ballads, in 15 verses you've got what it would take a filmmaker two hours to do."

Simpson and Jessica, his California-born songwriter wife, moved to the United States a few years ago. "I left England because I was sitting at the top of a very small tree there," he said. "I could have stayed there and kicked myself into the very thin branches, I suppose, but I needed a challenge and it needed to be somewhere else. I think it's a more conservative society there. The musical expressions which come out of England which appear to American observers as being more radical, I think to some extent are a reaction to the stultifying, extreme conservatism of British society."

He finds that the folk music community isn't entirely free of blinders. "I've always maintained that the moment you attempt to define a kind of music and keep it pure, you've killed it. If you're not careful, the folk scene really tries to do that. I don't want somebody whose imagination stops shortly after the Kingston Trio telling me what I can do."

Among Simpson's current projects are an album of original songs by Jessica and him and a guitar instructional book; he's also maintaining a schedule of performing and teaching. As he has on past tours, he will conduct a workshop at the Shade Tree the day after his performances.

When he's at home, he either whiles away his time playing Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes on a 12-string fretless Turkish Cumbash , or teaches a limited number of guitar students. He and Jessica have only recently moved out from the East Coast, so his shingle hasn't been hanging in Santa Cruz for long. Even so, a number of guitarists and fans have sought him out.

"It's a curious and gratifying fact," he remarked, "that in the last five years I haven't done much touring--though I'm really beginning to step on it now--but a surprising number of people seem to know who I am."

As often seems to be the case with musicians, particularly those with a cultish popularity, some fans seem to rely on Simpson's music to sort out their life's problems. The weight of that doesn't especially bother him.

"I think people need all the help they can get," Simpson said. "If I in my small way can be of assistance, can lend a little clarity to somebody's existence, then that's fine. I certainly feel I need all the help I can get. And I'm not Bob Dylan, so I'm not ever going to be elevated to such a status where reality is impinged upon, I don't think.

"I feel like I will never be anything more than a cult guitar player, but that's fine as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I can make a living doing that. So long as I can do that and make people aware of what I do, and I can continue to develop to my satisfaction, that's great."

* Martin Simpson will play Saturday at 8 and 10:15 p.m. at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. $12. The 8 p.m. show is sold out. (714) 364-5270.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World